Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sermon for May 22, 2011; Acts 7:54-60

Rev. George Miller
Acts 7:54-60
“Who Is Our Witness?”
May 22, 2011

Stephen, dear Stephen; so passionate and filled with the Holy Spirit, he told the establishment just what he thought.

Stephen, angelic Stephen; was dragged outside, murdered for what he believed; stoned while witnesses placed their coats at young Saul’s feet.

But I don’t think he felt so alone; as the song states: everybody must get stoned…

Have ya’ll heard about who is turning 70 this Tuesday? Yes indeed, Bob Dylan is going to be 70 years old. That’s amazing.

Bob Dylan is an American institution: singer, songwriter, poet, and painter. He’s won an Oscar, a few Grammies, and even a Pulitzer Prize citation.

With his harmonica, guitar and nasally voice, his songs chronicled the 60’s and made him a figurehead of the social unrest that was sweeping through the nation.

Tunes such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They are a Changin’” combined the philosophical with the politically personal and became theme songs to the anti-war and Civil Rights movements.

Now, I wasn’t alive during the 60’s, so I missed all that. Instead, Bob Dylan has a whole other meaning in my life.

My father always played him: in the car, on the deck, by the workbench. So I always associate Bob Dylan with my Dad; which is ironic because as a Vietnam Vet, NYC Cop and Eagle Scout, my father was not anti-establishment; he WAS the establishment.

Yet something about Bob Dylan spoke to him.

One song always confused me. It was called “Rainy Day Women” even though nothing is ever said about rainy days or women.

Instead, the chorus goes “But I would not feel so all alone; everybody must get stoned.”

As a kid, I couldn’t understand this song and why my father would play it in front of me. All I knew about the word “stoned” was that it involved doing drugs, and weren’t drugs bad?

It took growing up and experiencing life to understand just what Bob Dylan meant when he said everyone must get stoned.

What Bob Dylan meant was that everyone, at some point, will be publicly humiliated and/or unfairly mistreated for who they are, what they believe or how they live.

Listen to some of the lyrics to hear how he covers the bases:

“They’ll stone ya when you’re trying to be so good…they’ll stone ya when you’re trying to keep your seat…they’ll stone ya when you are young and able…they’ll stone you and then say you are brave; they’ll stone you when you are set down in your grave.

But I would not feel so all alone; everybody must get stoned.”

70 years old. It’s hard to believe the voice of America’s counter-culture revolution and of my childhood has reached that milestone, and that his words are just as effective and true today as they were nearly 50 years ago.

Today we also heard about someone who was counter-cultural, someone who touched upon the fact that the times they were a changin’ and there was something new blowin’ in the wind.

Except this young man, named Stephen, was physically attacked for what he believed and died for what he said; he was in fact stoned by a mob infuriated by his words.

Stephen was an early player in the Christian church. A Greek-speaking Jew, he was among seven people selected by the Disciples to help with balancing the needs of Word and Sacrament with Pastoral Care and Service ministry.

In chapter 6 Stephen is described as being a man full of faith and grace, which is one way to say he was not driven by ego and personal gain.

He may have had the face of an angel, but he had this power about him that allowed him to do great wonders and excel at public speaking.

Most of all, he was filled with the Holy Spirit, making him unafraid to stand his ground for what he believed to be right.

Because everyone must get stoned, lies are circulated about him and Stephen is arrested.

He goes before the angry council, and instead of getting wrapped up in their games, he retells the story of God’s people.

The ways in which God extended hope and grace and the ways in which the people turned their backs, sinned against God and worried more about their Temple then the reason why the Temple existed.

As if that is enough, Stephen holds them accountable for the murder of Jesus, accusing them all of being stubborn men who act like animals and are no better then their prophet-killing ancestors.

With those words, a crowd descends upon him, drags Stephen out of the city limits, and kills him with rocks and stones.

But make no mistake about it: Stephen does not die as a victim but as victor; praying to Jesus and asking for his forgiveness upon the people.

In doing so, Stephen becomes the first to die for his belief in Jesus Christ. However, stoning does not silence Stephen’s witness; it actually causes the Gospel message to grow deeper and wider then before.

This is but a part of the history of the early Christian faith, at a time when we were the minority, when we did not have a dominant voice that tried to dictate culture, but were dominated and dictated to by the culture, by politics, by whoever the ruling kingdom was.

Christians back then were the minority, in fact, the minority of the minority, just a blip on the cultural map.

But you know: there is something intriguing about being the minority; something exciting.

Because, when you are the minority, you usually have only three choices: you can stand up, you can shut up, and you can give up.

And it is clear which one Stephen was going to do. And thank God it was not giving up nor shutting up.

Because here is what happened: after Stephen was stoned to death, it scared the heck out of the earliest Christians. It scared them so much that they ran away; it scared them so much that they went to other countries.

But guess what also went with them: the message. The message about the Good News.

And with that message came the gifts and strength of the Holy Spirit, the love of Christ and the news of God’s forgiveness.

And even though they ran away, they did not give up telling their stories, they did not give up worshipping God and they did not give up sitting down and sharing their meals.

And guess what happened: every time they sat at the table to give thanks and to break their daily bread, the presence of the resurrected Jesus Christ was with them once again.

And because of that presence and because of the Holy Spirit they found they had been given the ability and the courage to go and to do, to preach and to praise, to share the Word and to tell their story.

They may have been the minority, but shutting up and giving up would not be in their spiritual make-up.

So instead they planted seeds of heaven all over the land, and those seeds set root, and grew and produced fruit, and Christianity was able to grow and grow, no matter how much they were stoned or society tried to toss boulders their way.

And as modern day Christians, their voice and that same Spirit lives on in us.

That voice that says God forgives, that voice that says God loves, and that voice that says God is above all else.

Can I get an “amen”?

And as members of the United Church of Christ, a minority in America, a minority in Florida and most certainly a minority in all of Highlands County, we are being called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to go that extra step further.

Even though there may be people out there ready to throw stones,

-we dare to be a witness that says “God forgives; even those who the rest of the world claims are unforgivable.”

Even though there may be people out there ready to throw stones,

-we dare to be a witness that says “God loves everyone; even when the world and others want to finger-point, create exclusions and draw a fence around the table.”

Even though there may be people out there ready to throw stones,

-we dare to be a witness that says “God is above ALL else, even denominations, even religious institutions, even dogma, even creeds, even scripture itself.”

In conclusion, everyone, if they are truly filled with and guided by the Holy Spirit, will at times be stoned.

There will be times in which what you say will cause anger in others. At times people would prefer you to shut up and try to force you into giving up.

But as long as we remain focused on who is our witness, as long as we understand what the Gospel message is and act accordingly, we can find a way to stand up.

Yes, we may end up being stoned, but we will not be silenced, for our message is timeless.

And we can find comfort in knowing that even if we die for what we believe, in Christ we are but asleep.

For it is into God’s faithful hands that we are committed, and it is in the Lord Jesus Christ that we have already been redeemed.

Let all blessings be to the Holy Spirit that empowers us, to God who does not hold our sin against us and to Jesus who stands with love to welcome us into glory.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sermon from May 15, 2011; Acts 2:42-47

Rev. George Miller
Acts 2:42-47
“Our Daily Bread”
May 15, 2011

Last week, we heard Luke’s account of the resurrection; how the risen Christ was made known at a table through the breaking of bread.

Today’s scripture from Acts is written by the same author and makes not one but two references to breaking bread.

“Day by day…they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” Know what that reminds me of?

“Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.”

Give us this day our daily bread/ Day by day, they broke bread at home.

It’s no secret that a consistent theology of mine is hospitality; the importance of shared meals and welcoming people to eat together.

I’ve had some memorable meals (and the waistline to prove it). Beef bourguignon, birthday celebrations, after church lunches and afternoon cocktails.

But I never had a meal like that of a certain pastor who was asked to dinner by one of his church members, someone who was notorious for being a bad housekeeper.

When he sat down at the table, he noticed the dishes were the dirtiest he had ever seen. Running his finger over the grit and grime, he asked his hostess in the most delicate way possible “Were these dishes ever washed?”

“Oh yes,” she replied, “they’re as clean as soap and water could get them.”

He felt a bit uncomfortable, but blessed the food anyway and started eating. Despite the dirty dishes, the food was actually delicious.

When dinner was over, the hostess took the plates and walked outside to the backyard shouting “Here Soap! Here Water!”

Now, this story never actually happened, and if it did, woe to that pastor. It’s far-fetched, meant to create a response.

Today’s scripture also sounds a bit on the far-fetched side. The author is relating about a time in the church when everything seemed golden.

The resurrected Christ had ascended and the disciples were left in Jerusalem to be his witnesses to all the ends of the earth.

The day of Pentecost arrives and with it the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and things are happening all over.

Peter, filled with passion, gives an incredible sermon. He tells the people about Jesus, he calls them to repent, and he reminds them of God’s promises not just to them but to their children.

That day, 3,000 people were baptized and joined the 12 disciples in their ministry. 3,000 people, about a 1/3 of Sebring.

Perhaps what’s even more amazing is that these enthusiastic events were not a one time deal that faded away the next day.

No, what we hear is that God gets busy creating a new community; a community in which everyone devotes themselves to learning. They live together, sell their belongings, and give the money away.

And day after day, they were together! Day after day they’re in the temple; day after day they’re sharing meals with gladness; day after day they’re praising God; each and every 3,012 of them.

For those of us here who are extroverts, this sounds like an awesome thing. For those who are introverts, this can sound quite horrifying; doing everything together.

Now, did this really happen as written? Or, is it possible that the author exaggerated a bit? Could 3,012 people really live in such a way?

Or is the author is looking back with a bit of nostalgia, trying to hold onto an ideal?

That’s for each of us to discern; but let’s not lose the message, which is: through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, God did something so new in which Christ was becoming known to more and more people, and heaven really was a place on earth.

And as stated before, there were a lot of shared meals and a lot of breaking bread together with glad and generous hearts.

Give us this day our daily bread/ Day by day, they broke bread at home.

Daily bread. Day by day. So, so important.

First, meals were a great equalizer for Jesus. He ate with everyone: rich and poor, tall and short, at a table or outside. The way Jesus ate leveled the social playing field, making everyone feel welcome.
For anyone who felt like an outsider, a nerd or a face without a name, this was revolutionary.

This trait of Jesus not being picky with who he ate with irritated some, for example the Pharisees who grumbled about how he welcomed and ate with sinners. (Luke 15:2).

Which brings us to a second point: Jesus’ eating with sinners was an embodiment of God’s forgiveness.

Remember growing up: if we misbehaved we were sent away from the table. That was a powerful act of exclusion that said because of our actions we were not suitable to eat with the family.

Even if you were given a plate of food to eat in your room, it didn’t taste quite the same.

How did you know you were forgiven, that you had paid your dues? You were allowed back to the table to share in the same bowl of mashed potatoes, the same roast beef, and the same hot butter biscuits.

And it felt like heaven.

Which brings us to the third point: shared meals recalled the Last Supper and the promised messianic banquet we would one day all share.

As Luke 25 recalls, it was during his last meal that Jesus took the loaf of bread, gave thanks, broke it and passed it to them, saying they were to do this in remembrance of him. Afterwards he promised that one day they would eat and drink at his kingdom table.

The importance of breaking bread together: it was how Jesus leveled the social playing field, it was a tangible sign of God’s forgiveness and it was how Jesus wanted us to look back and look ahead.

No wonder why the Resurrected Christ was made known through the breaking of bread in Emmaus.

Which brings us back to the Lord’s Prayer: what if the expression “Give us this day our daily bread” is not just a plea to having enough food?

What if it also a way to say “Give us in every day a chance to break bread with each other in fellowship”?

What if it can mean “Give us the daily chance to have the playing field leveled; give us a chance to not feel like an outsider, a nerd, or a nameless face. Let us be an insider while maintaining our own identity as a Mary, as a Gene, as a Reynaldo, as a Connie, as a Sandra, as a Tom”?

What if “Give us this day our daily bread” can also mean “Remind us again that our sins are forgiven and let us sit side by side and share a meal with our family in Christ”?

What if it’s another way to say “Let us eat together so we are reminded of the promise that we will all have a place at the kingdom table”?

Day by day, they broke bread at home/ Give us this day our daily bread.

In conclusion, we may never know if Luke’s memories of the earliest church were completely accurate, or if he was looking back in hopeful nostalgia.

But it doesn’t change one of the lessons we learn: that in the community of Christ, a meal is not just a meal, but it is a chance to experience Christ amongst us.

Any time we get to be together and break bread is a chance to remember we are all equals in Christ.

To remember that we too have a place at the kingdom table.

That in Christ we all have the assurance that our sins have been forgiven and we have been washed cleaner then any soap and water could get us.

For that we can all be grateful.

All thanks and blessings be to the Spirit that works to unite us, to God who forgives us and to Christ who feeds us.

Amen and amen.

Sermon from May 8, 2011; Luke 24:13-36

Rev. George Miller
Luke 24:13-36
“Recognizing Christ”
May 8, 2011

There are things we do that make a difference; then there are the things we don’t do that forever shape our lives.

I’d like to share with you an incident that happened to me 15 years ago, one that I am not proud of; one which I carry with me to this very day.

I was eating at a restaurant; the kind that served organic fare; the kind of place where politically correct yuppies go to eat so they can feel good about themselves, as if eating brown rice really does save the world.

I had my back to the door. The clanging of chimes signaled that someone had come in.

I can’t describe exactly how I felt, but it was akin to the sensation of hair standing on end. I felt as if a presence had entered the place.

The man created a scene, speaking loudly and with slurred words.

I thought that I should turn around; that I should twist my body so I could see what he looked like, so that I could see his face.

I felt as if Jesus was present…but I was scared. So I did nothing.

Instead I ate my yuppy food, I listened as the employees tried to deal with him. I listened as he asked for help.

I heard him fall to the floor. I heard as they called the cops. I sat and did nothing as they escorted him out of the place.

Although I knew, I just knew that Christ was present through that man, I never turned my back until I had finished my meal and stood up to pay my bill.

By then it was too late, the moment had passed. I left that place feeling as if I had failed some kind of test.

I still look back to that day, ever so sure that Christ was indeed present, that I had been given an opportunity to see the wounded, helpless face of God, and had done nothing.

What would have happened if I had turned around? Would it have changed the course of my life?

Or perhaps at that point of my journey I wasn’t supposed to turn around; perhaps I was not ready and this was a precursor for the next time in which God needed me to see, to really see, the wounded and risen Christ in my midst.

I share this event because it has informed my life. It has prevented from being so blasé with others I have come across.

If I had been in seminary at this point, I would have known that the notion of encountering Christ through others was not a new idea.

After all, in Matthew 25 Jesus tells the people that whenever they feed the hungry, welcome a stranger or care for the less fortunate, they are caring for him.

The term Jesus uses is “least of these.”

He says that whatever we have done for the least of these we have done for him.

And for those who do act upon a need, Jesus calls them “blessed” and “inheritors of the kingdom.”

If we put Matthew 25 and Luke 24 together, we come up with a theology of hospitality, a theology of mission and theology of presence, one that makes the claim of how Jesus is always among us.

So let’s take a look at Luke’s telling of the resurrection. Unlike Matthew there is no earthquake or guards who fall down.

Unlike Mark there is no fearful running away from the empty tomb. Unlike John there is no moving account of Mary in the garden being told not to cling on.

This is Luke’s take of the resurrection, and Luke does it in his own way: with people who are on a journey, a theme that Luke delights in embracing.

It’s Sunday. Two travelers are walking away from Jerusalem, the city in which Jesus has been crucified, the city in which his tomb has been found empty, and the city in which some women claims he’s alive.

What’s scarier: that the one you put all your hope and faith in has been murdered or the thought that he has come back to life and is now wandering around?

The two talk about the recent events when a stranger joins them and asks what they are talking about.

The two stop; they stand still, they look sad.

It’s as if they are frozen in their tracks, overcome with grief.

I wonder how many people can relate to this? Those feelings that can make you go numb and leave you stuck in place?

Being still in sorrow is not the best feeling in the world, but fortunately for these two individuals, they will not be stuck for long.

The stranger appears to have a gift for insight; he has a knack of teaching history in such a way that it becomes new.

With this stranger by their side, they find a way to move forward, listening to and being reminded about the history of God’s people.

As the day draws to an end, they come to their destination. They invite the stranger to stay with them, an act of hospitality.

And in welcoming the stranger, they sit down to share a meal, and something amazing happens: the stranger takes the bread, he blesses it, and he breaks it.

And suddenly they realize, suddenly they can see, that Christ is not dead, Christ is alive, and Christ is right with them at table.

And within that moment there is a change. For people who had felt great sadness, they realize that there has been a burning within their hearts.

And with that change becomes an act. Instead of being still, they immediately get up and go back to Jerusalem to share the good news of what they have experienced.

And with that act becomes another opportunity, for as they are speaking, Jesus appears again, this time with the words “Peace be with you.”

I am willing to believe those words were like honey to their ears and that they felt peace indeed.

This story is a stunning achievement of Luke because it makes the claim that Jesus Christ is indeed alive and that he will appear to us in ways that are familiar and new, traditional and the unexpected.

For example, that wherever two or more are gathered in memory of Christ, he is there.

Whenever two or more retell the Gospel story, Christ is there.

And that whenever two or more gather for a meal, Christ is there.

And it makes sense that Luke is telling this story since he features not one but two accounts of a miracle feeding, and it is Luke who tells the story of the prodigal son who returns home and is given a feast.

So, it should be of no surprise that for Luke, the chance to share a meal becomes a way in which we can experience the Resurrected Christ.

But it seems as if Luke is also telling us that having that experience is not enough. It is what we will do with that experience.

Will we use it as an opportunity to tell others about Christ?

Will we use it as a means to be unstuck from the sadness that freezes us in place?

Will we use it as a way to continue our journey, to gather with others and to be part of a community bigger then ourselves?

Will we use it as a means of mission and of reaching out, realizing that if we can experience Christ at the table, we can also meet Christ in the hungry and the sick, in the thirsty and the incarcerated, in the naked and the stranger?

However we answer that, Luke seems to tell us that when we meet Christ, there is the opportunity to move from sadness into joy.

There is also the opportunity to share hospitality and to do mission.

In conclusion, today’s reading reminds us of how the Resurrected Christ can appear to us so many ways.

The challenge is to not turn our back but to recognize when Christ is in our midst, and to do something about it.

My prayer for all of us this week is that we may each experience the risen Christ in our midst, and that it will prompt us to act in a way of hope and in peace.

And when we do, we too may also move from sadness to joy, from a sense of stillness to a burning of our hearts.

Blessings be to the Spirit that moves us along the way, to God who reveal the truth and to Jesus Christ who is present with us in more ways then we can imagine.

Amen and amen.

Sermon from May 1, 2011; John 20:19-23

Rev. George Miller
John 20:19-23
“Fearless Forgiveness”
May 1, 2011

It is said that the Resurrection is the defining moment of Christianity.

I struggle with that because there seems to be so many defining moments. Creation. Exodus. The Birth of Jesus. The Last Supper.

Each has their own significance.

Life out of chaos. Freedom from bondage. God entering into the human story. A meal to unite all people throughout all time. A sign of just how far God will go for us.

All of these so personally meaningful. To select one event over another seems too much to ask.

Yet, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ stands in it’s own place, a triumphant testimony of what God has done; proof everlasting that death, as ravenous as it may seem, has no power over life and the God who gives it.

The Resurrection is the event in which we build our faith; it is the Resurrection in which we say that we have experienced the living and the wounded Christ.

And in that living, wounded Christ we discover again who God is.

As we talked about last week, each Gospel writer presents their take of the Easter event in their own way, with their own agenda and lessons they wish to share.

In reading John’s account, I found myself struck by what the risen, wounded Christ says.

It is Sunday night. The disciples have heard the news of the empty tomb. They have gathered. Afraid. The door is locked.

Their leader, the one who had been betrayed, the one they had deserted, the one who had been publicly humiliated and brutally crucified, appears to them.

And the words he speaks says volumes. Under normal circumstances the expression “Peace be with you” would be considered a common salutation.

But this isn’t a normal circumstance and for people huddled in fear, the claim of peace is almost ironic.

How can one speak peace when everyone’s convinced that they will be next on the cross?

How can one speak peace to deserters who left you high and dry?

But that is just what Christ does.

And with that peace, comes a gift: the Holy Spirit, shared in that room.

And with that gift, a direction. To forgive.

Let us reflect upon that for a moment.

To forgive.

John is doing something amazingly subversive here.

If you want to know who God is and what God is about, look at the resurrected Christ, the one who still bears marks of the nails that held him to the cross.

Look, and listen to the one God has raised from the dead.

Does he say “I condemn you for deserting me”?


“I banish you for not believing what Mary Magdalene said”?


“Grab your swords and let’s kill all those who were responsible for my death”?


He says “forgive.”

Forgive the sins.

Members of Emmanuel United Church of Christ, as Christians who proclaim Christ resurrected, we are called to forgive.

To forgive. To forgive. To forgive…

…In the past week I’ve been called to visit two people, both who were born and raised Catholic.

And if you know anything about Catholics, or perhaps you were or still are Catholic, you know that it is not just a form of Christian faith, it is a complete cultural identity.

And part of that identity is the sacrament of confession coupled with the forgiveness of sins. It’s vital. It’s powerful. It is beautiful.

And in visiting these two individuals, I realized that at some point they needed to hear the words. They needed to be told that they were forgiven.

That whatever mistakes they may have made, whatever wrong they may have done, God through Christ has released them.

It was powerful to be able to say it. And at least for one of the families, it was important for them to know their loved one heard those words.

“You are forgiven.”

My God, if those words do not create new opportunities, restore relationships and open up closed hearts, I don’t know what does.

Yet, sadly, forgiveness seems to have been…forgotten.

In an article, it is stated that only 50% of UCC congregations use a form of confession during worship.

That blows my mind, because without confessing our sins, how can we receive assurance that our sins have been pardoned?

And without the assurance of that forgiveness, how can we truly step out into the world being reflections of Christ’s peace, love and harmony?


The Gospel truth that the good and liberating God accepts us despite who we are and what we have done.

And yes, we can’t always wipe away or reverse the ramifications of what we have done, but at least we can know that God does indeed forgive us.

Admitting our own sins and seeking forgiveness can be difficult, but perhaps even more difficult is our ability to forgive those who have wronged us.

The actions of forgiveness are not something you can really teach a person to do, like jumping a rope or fixing a car.

There are no proven steps on how to forgive. There’s no fool-proof way to assure that it is done in the proper manner.

And truthfully, can anyone really forgive and forget? And actually, do those two words even belong together?

After all there are some events, some actions so horrendous and hurtful, that one can not forget, nor should one forget.

But can one still forgive?

I think back to a few years ago when a book called “The Shack” was released, and it seemed like every church-going person was reading it, sharing it, discussing it.

Out of curiosity, I also read it. The author did something I found stunning: he presented a theology of forgiveness that I had not encountered elsewhere.

For those who have not read it, “The Shack” is about a man named Mack whose daughter had been murdered.

This horrific event creates a riff in Mack’s relationships. For years, he is left stunned and numb.

Then, one weekend, he finds himself at the place where his daughter was killed and in the presence of God.

Mack is asked to do a difficult thing: to forgive the man who killed his daughter.

But before Mack could do the seemingly impossible, he has to speak the truth; he has to name what’s on his heart.

In an outpouring of tears, Mack begins to confess; his anger, his rage. His desire to seek revenge.

God allows Mack to say everything he feels, and then God says “For you to forgive this man is for you to release him to me and allow me to redeem him.”

Over the next few pages, God explains that forgiveness is not about forgetting or immediately having all forms of trust restored.

We forgive so that we can be released from the anger and hurt that can eat us alive and destroy our ability to feel true joy again.

And forgiveness does not have to be a one time deal. It is a process, in which we may need to declare forgiveness over and over again, and then perhaps one day we may even begin to pray for that person’s wholeness and restoration in God.

There is one line from the novel that I most enjoyed: to forgive is “about letting go of another person’s throat.”

To let go of another person’s throat; it means that now our metaphoric hands are free.

They are free to hug and they are free to hold. They are free to serve and they are free to heal.

They are free to feed the hungry and to visit the sick.

They are free to take care of the widowed and orphaned, the alien and the disenfranchised.

They are free to build and they are free to create. They are free to worship and they are free to give thanks.

In other words, by forgiving and in being forgiven we are freed to do the ministry of the resurrected Christ in this, our Father’s world.

So, on this new day, on this new week, on this new month, may we find our own ways to forgive.

May we find our own way to release our feelings of anger and our hold upon other’s necks.

And may we find that the peace of Christ allows us to reflect that peace to others.

Blessings be to the Holy Spirit that brings us new creation, blessings be to God who wants to redeem us all and to the Risen Son, who is both the bearer of wounds and the key to our healing.

Amen and amen.

Sermon for April 17, 2011; Matthew 21:1-11

Rev. George Miller
Matthew 21:1-11
“…and Afterwards”
April 17, 2011

It’s Palm Sunday! Let me hear you say “Hosanna!” Let me hear you say “Save us now!”

The Messiah is at the Mount of Olives, about to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah 14:4.

Cloaks have been placed upon a donkey, a crowd has gathered, some cutting down tree branches and spreading them on the ground.

It’s amazing- the Promised King, the Anointed One, has entered into the Holy City!

People are shouting, they are singing out “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Jesus seems so perfect, so right, riding on a donkey, showing his solidarity with the common person. So humble, meek and mild.

Everything seems to be going according to God’s plan… until you hear what happens next: the so called Messiah immediately challenges the Temple and creates a scene!

Jesus storms into the Temple, drives people out, overturns tables, upends seats and sends money flying.

Religious leaders become furious of his havoc causing, worship space attack and the manner in which he speaks back to them.

It’s as if Jesus done lost his mind!

Things don’t go much better when Jesus comes back the next day, doing whatever he wants. When he’s questioned by the elders, Jesus responds in a way that is meant to embarrass them.

Then, to add extra insult, he informs them that tax collectors and whores will enter the Kingdom of God before they do…

…Is it any wonder that Jesus was crucified? Why he was seen as a threat to the throne, a threat to the current religious system, a threat to the established powers-that-be?

Is it any wonder that a week which began with a triumphant entry of tree branches and song would end with a public act of punishment?

Can anyone truly be surprised by the turn of events in which a public figure falls victim to powers beyond their control?

I’m not, because look how many times we’ve seen those who experience public appreciation also experience public humiliation…

…Throughout Lent I’ve thought about Jesus as a leader: as a very strong, very alpha male.

And I’ve wondered how the events of Palm Sunday turned into the grimness of Good Friday.

How could the crowds that welcomed Jesus with loud “Hosannas” be the same ones who turned on him with shouts of “Crucify!”?

Then I had a thought- that Jesus, as a man, was someone who had become a blank slate in the eyes of the people.

A blank slate in which people put their own expectations, their own beliefs, their own agendas onto.

In other words, I believe that Jesus wasn’t always seen as he actually was, but as people wanted to see him.

When it turned out that he wasn’t that, the people turned on him.

Even today, 2,000 years later, there seems to be a misunderstanding of who Jesus is, how he spoke, what he did, what he tolerated.

In fact, I’ve come to believe that Jesus Christ was killed for the very fact that he himself was considered to be un-Christ-like.

Yes, he did some really awesome things, like feeding and healing folk, calming storms and telling great stories.

But for someone who was supposed to be the Messiah, he did some questionable things.

Think about it.

He hung out with people of questionable morals, eating meals with women who sold their body and men who ripped off their neighbors.

Instead of surrounding himself with proven leaders and religious men he spent time with fishermen, engaged women in conversation, touched sick people who had who-knows-what and welcomed children.

Then there was his mouth! My God, Jesus didn’t talk unicorns and daisies all day!

He could be blunt, curt and down-right rude. For example, he refers to the disciples as faithless and perverse (Matt 17:17), he calls Peter Satan (Matt 16:23).

Plus he seems to delight in publicly humiliating authority figures (Matt 15:6-7) such as when he alludes to the Pharisees and Sadducees as being adulterous and evil, before he storms off (Matt 16:1-4).

Finally, as we see in Palm Sunday, Jesus did not totally fit the expectations of the Messiah.

He comes in humble and gentle, not with a sword. He arrives on a donkey, not a military-style warhorse. Then the whole incident when he goes into the Temple to chase the insiders out and bring the outsiders in.

This will not do.

The hoped for Messianic Ministry that Jesus rode in with is not the ministry the people wanted after all. Wild chaos sets forth and he will have to pay the price…


It’s a hard task to undertake; a complex mix of research, teaching, caring, advocating, administrating and, hopefully, praying.

When done right, a minister looks and gives off a vibe, like they are actually not working at all, just doing what comes naturally.

When done wrong, you can see the seams, sense the work, and feel the urgency.

In other words, you can tell when the minister has fallen off of his or her…donkey.

Ministry is way harder then most can imagine.

Anyone who steps behind a pulpit, takes on a leadership role or volunteers to be on a committee is usually unprepared for just often they will fall off that donkey, are told they’re riding the donkey wrong, or find that someone wants to push them off the donkey.

It is a sad truth, but a reality of the world.

This doesn’t just happen to ministers. It happens to anyone who takes on a leader’s role. Doesn’t matter if you are a parent or head of the PTA, CEO or shift manager of Burger King.

There is always someone who will claim you can do your job better, faster, nicer, and that sometimes you are wrong or that you have totally…fallen off your donkey.

…and sometimes they are absolutely, 100%, without a shadow of a doubt, right…

…do ya’ll realize that I’ve been here for a full year already? A lot has transpired, some good, some bad.

Almost 20 people left because of my orientation. A few others dropped their membership. For some it was about decisions made, for others it was because, well things just didn’t feel the same. This is natural and happens in every church.

What about the good? Despite worries, attendance has held steady. Members who left were replaced with new members, returning members, visiting family and friends.

Our Spaghetti Supper, Harvest Home, Global Mission Fair and Stewardship Season were successes.

And yes, some mistakes have been made.

So before we enter into Holiest of all Christian weeks, I would like to say that I am sorry and to ask for your forgiveness.

I apologize that sometimes I, as a pastor, can be abrupt or loud, act as if I already know what you are about to say.

These are traits I am not proud of and I’ve been working on.

I apologize that sometimes I have such a need for control that I seem to hold on with my hands, feet and teeth.

But I say “Thank you” because you have taught me more about letting go then any other group of folk.

I apologize that sometimes my mind gets stuck on a one-way track and I can’t so easily jump off it.

What I ask is that when that happens, allow me to say that I am on that track and I’ll just need some time or space to get off of it.

Also, I am sorry if there have been decisions made that have upset you or made you feel as if we are not acting like good Christians.

I can truly say that all decisions that have been made have been for the best interest of the church.

Many times these decisions are based on information that can not be openly shared.

Some decisions are based on things seen through a set of eyes shaped by ethics, psychology and legality.

None of these decisions have been made in a vacuum but talked about with other pastors, the FL Conference or amongst church leaders.

But I do recognize that some decisions were not carried off in the best manner or done in the best possible way. Hindsight, instincts and group dynamics only goes so far.

For this, I apologize. I am sorry, and I ask for your grace and mercy, and for your forgiveness, because that forgiveness allows us to move forward and to continue on.

In conclusion, ministry is indeed a difficult task. It often involves riding in on a donkey and sometimes looking like a…well, a donkey.

But it is a task that one is called to. The ministry we embark on is not always the ministry we imagined or expected to embrace.

Although ministry is designed to help and bring healing, sometimes that very same ministry can upset some, or feel like it alienates others.

But if it is the ministry that God has placed ahead on the path, then it is a ministry in which results can be reached, surprises will occur and moments of transformation and resurrection happen.

As we continue our Lenten journey to the table and to the cross, may we trust and believe that God may not give us what we want, but will give us what we in fact need.

For our next year together, when a mistake is made, when a wrong path has been followed, when a perceived blank slate is not blank at all, may we all find within ourselves the ability to engage in acts of forgiveness, moments of grace and signs of mercy.

Blessings be to the Spirit, the Son and to our God.

Amen and amen.

Sermon for April 3, 2011; 1 Samuel 16:1-13

Rev. George Miller
1 Samuel 16:1-13
“Little Pebbles”
April 3, 2011

I have a question to ask. It’s not meant to put anyone on the spot, so you do not have to answer.

How many people read their Bible once a day? How many read it at least once a week?

I ask because sometimes you’ll hear someone make a statement or a decision which they think is biblically based, but is actually pretty far from it.

There are so many ways to see and experience things. There’s the way we think we see them, the way the world tries to make us see them, the way God sees them.

Often times, these realities are so completely different.

For example who we assume to be the right one to lead, to get the job done, or to change history.

The world has a pretty clear view: virile men, with money, from the right background, with the right education, with the right wife.

There are variations and there are the exceptions, but the world view of who is pretty straight forward, from president to CEO to senior pastor.

Yet, the biblical narrative, if you truly take time to read it and take it to heart, gives us a different view.

Yes, it is a view that is still very patriarchal, but it is a view that the one who God chooses to lead, get the job done or change history is not who we would immediately expect.

A close biblical reading shows that God does not always call forward mighty mountains of men and mighty mountains of women, but that often time God moves through little pebbles of people.

Those who you would pass by on the street, ignore or assume they wouldn’t amount to much.

As we soon discover, it’s not so much what they have done in the past, but what God will do through them in the future that will matter.

So let’s take a journey. First, Sarah. An older woman unable to produce an heir.

At a point of her life when she should be retired and playing golf, God calls her and Abraham to move cross country so that she could have a son.

As foolish as that may sound, that’s just what they do. And after 25 years of waiting, Sarah gives birth to a baby boy named Isaac, making her the grandmother to both Jews and Christians.

Gideon. When we first meet him in Judges 6, he is the furthest thing from a mighty warrior. Instead, he is under a tree, doing the work of a woman, the self-professed weakest member of the weakest family of the weakest tribe.

Yet it is he who God calls to lead the army, to blow his trumpet and to make the walls of Jericho come tumbling down.

Mary. An insignificant, unmarried girl engaged to an insignificant blue-collar worker in an insignificant little town who would carry a child so seemingly insignificant that no one minded that his bed was an animals’ feeding trough.

In today’s reading there is David, the eighth son of a nobody from Bethlehem. A boy stuck outside watching the sheep, whose own father thinks nothing of excluding him.

Yet it is he that God will call to become the greatest monarch the Israelites would ever know.

Each of these people, if you had met them face to face, would at first appear to be little pebbles of people. But through each of them God changed the world.

So let’s take a deeper look, and see what we can learn about the people God would call forward.

Today’s story begins during a dark moment of the people’s history: their current ruler, Saul, has become an embarrassing disappointment.

So God steps in and tells Samuel that now is the time to select a new King.

God is very specific and tells Samuel to go to a little known city called Bethlehem. There he is to find a man named Jesse. We don’t know much about Jesse; his wealth or his stature. But we do know his family had a questionable pedigree.

His ancestors included Rahab, a prostitute; Tamar, a well-known adulteress; and Ruth, an immigrant.

His was the kind of family that today’s media would have a field day tearing apart.

It was from this family that God would select the next King. Samuel invites Jesse and his sons to a sacrifice and one by one each son walks past him.

Apparently, Jesse was the Joe Kennedy of his day because he had some good looking sons. The first one goes past; Samuel sees his height, his stature; assumes he has to be the one God wants as king.

But God says “Na-ah. This isn’t a beauty pageant. I’m not judging these guys by their looks, but on the contents of their heart.”

Seven sons walk pass and none of them are pleasing to God. Seven sons.

Samuel asks if all the sons are present, and although the narrator does not state it, you can gather a sense that there is a hesitancy in Jesse’s voice “Well...there is the youngest. But he’s out taking care of the sheep.”

The boy comes in; the youngest of the eight, a son not even considered by his own father worthy of being part of the beauty parade.

What does God say? “By golly! That’s the one. Anoint him now.”

Now, there’s an irony here because after all this talk of not judging by appearances, you’d expect the boy to be a bit on the homely side, like a Richard Nixon.

But how he is described? Handsome, with beautiful eyes. Ruddy.

Ruddy is a nice way of saying that he looked like someone who worked in the sun and with his hands. So perhaps he’s a little more Tom Selleck or Hugh Jackman then JFK or Robert Patterson.

So, a bit of the story’s irony is that God will not choose a leader based on his looks, but God would not exclude a person for their looks either.

But the true weight of the story is this: that Israel’s history will be bound up in this boy.

A boy who is not an established royal figure or scholar or entrepreneur, but the 8th son of a man descended from immigrants and immoral women.

And it is this boy who is called by God to lead the people through unlikely trials and successes.

This underdog who triumphs, this outsider who makes good, this outcast who rises in power from the margins.

This boy, tucked away with the sheep will become the one whom all others will be measured against, the royal messiah until the true Messiah comes along.

This boy will bear great leadership traits of being charismatic, idealistic and fearless.

He will also have some very human flaws. He will at times be raw, pragmatic, self-serving and calculating. And in one story he will break half of the commandments.

Still, this biblical understanding of how David took the stage and how God directed the show is a story to remind us that what God sees is not always what we or the world sees.

God sees the heart, God sees the will, God sees the character.

God finds possibilities for grace in the most unexpected and unlikeliest of people.

God has the freedom to choose what appears foolish in this world to bring about wisdom, to use what some consider weakness to create strength.

God is free to choose what is low and what is despised to bring about change and transformation.

God did so with the disciples, God did so with the cross and God most certainly did so with the empty tomb.

In closing, today’s scripture reminds us that God does not always call forward mountains of men and mountains of women, but that often times God moves through little pebbles of people.

Those who you would pass by on the street, ignore or assume they wouldn’t amount to much.

It’s not so much what they have done in the past, but what God will do through them in the future that will matter.

Sarah, an elderly barren woman who gives birth to a nation.

Gideon, an unsure washer of wine presses who becomes a mighty military man.

David, a forgotten son who would become the greatest King the people would ever know.

Mary, yet another unwed mom-to-be who would give birth to the Messiah.

To the world’s eyes, little pebbles of people, but as time and history would show, mighty mountains of men and women.

And we, and the Kingdom of God, are all that much better because of it.

Amen and amen.

(Please note: Much of my words on page 6 are taken from the finely written commentary on Samuel written by Birch in the New Interpreter’s Bible, pages 1094-95. I thank him for so wonderfully creating a thematic blueprint on which to add my own touches.)

Sermon from March 27, 2011; Exodus 17:1-7

Rev. George Miller
Exodus 17:1-7
“The Lord Among Us”
March 27, 2011

Coffee or tea? You can tell a lot about someone by which beverage they prefer.

What’s the difference between the two? Some will say the taste; I suggest it’s about time.

Coffee is very accessible, easy to make. Take out the coffee maker, put in a filter, add a few scoops of grounds, cold water, flip a switch, and soon you have a pot of hot, dark brew.

You can do whatever you want as it brews. Take a shower, clean the house, read the paper. Doesn’t matter if you come back to it 5 minutes or an hour later, there it will be, waiting for you.

You can even prepare coffee the night before by setting a timer so you can wake up to the smell and sound of it perking away.

Coffee is quick, it’s now, it’s very American.

Tea however, is done in stages. You can’t rush it.

You fill the kettle with cold water. You put it on the stove. Then you wait. Unlike coffee, you can’t walk away because there’s no telling when the water will be ready: 3 minutes, maybe 10.

You select whatever flavor tea you want, pour the hot water over it, let it steep. Another 3-5 minutes.

Even after you take the tea bag out you still can’t drink it just yet, because it’s too hot. So you wait, or gently blow on it, or take delicate sips.

Eventually the tea is just the right temperature and it is wonderful...but if you want another cup, you have to do it all over again!

There’s a reason why tea is called a civilized drink- it requires patience and time, encouraging thoughtful reflection if you’re alone or thoughtful conversation if you are with someone else.

To sum things up: coffee- quick; tea-stages.

Last week we talked about the call of Abraham and Sarah and how it took 25 years before they gave birth to their promised son. Genesis 12:9 tells us that they traveled in “stages.”

Today we are told that the Israelites traveled through the wilderness in stages. In other words, their journey took time and a lot of distance.

So, the people begin to get a bit cranky, they become impatient. They start complaining about their thirst, worrying that if they don’t reach water soon their children and livestock will die.

They want their journey to be like coffee, but God has decided it will be like tea.

One theologian said that they had only been in the wilderness for 2 ½ months. He stated it as if 2 ½ months is not a long time. But that’s 75 days.

75 days is a long time to be wandering around, especially if you’re not sure if your leader knows what he is doing.

I thought this particular theologian was a little snide. I’d like to see him go 3 days let alone 75 days without food, water and permanent shelter!

So of course the people quarrel with Moses, of course they wonder if the Lord is amongst them.

Wouldn’t you? I know I would...

...In some ways Emmanuel United Church of Christ is in the wilderness. Here we are in Sebring, FL, middle of the state, far below the rest of the country. Most of us are hundreds of miles away from family and life-long friends.

Sure, we got lakes, yes we got fruit trees, and yes we have a mall. But we also have this road called Hwy 27. Or 64. And 66.

Which means anywhere you want to go, guess what? It won’t be quick like coffee, but more like making tea: start here, stop there, repeat.

As a church we’ve had our share of stages, haven’t we?

For example, 5 years ago was the groundbreaking for our sanctuary. Five years ago! You know where I was five years ago? Freezing my patootie off in a place called Michigan!

And that groundbreaking didn’t happen quickly like coffee. No, it was more like a cup of tea.

First there were all the stages that led up to it. In 2000 there was the vision that people had of building a new sanctuary. (I wasn’t even in seminary then.)

Then the planning that went into it. The research. The blue prints that began in 2004. The fund-raising in 2005 with a consultant and a Capital Campaign Committee.

On March 26, 2006 there was the ground-breaking, which we have pictures of in our Narthex.

Then came even more stages of waiting. The building, construction, last minute problem solving.

Finally, the sanctuary was completed. In December ‘06 the first service was held here, then on Jan 14, ‘07 a Dedication Service, then an open house.

Stages upon stages, like a fine cup of tea.

And they continue to come; moving a table there, putting things here, taking down that, putting up this, rearranging those.

Stages upon stages of which we will never truly be done.

And why? Why have we done all these stages?

To let people know, in our hyper-caffeinated, uber-active, you-don’t-even-have-to-get-out-of-the-car-world that the Lord is indeed among us.

I invite you to repeat after me:
The Lord
is among us.

The Lord
is among us.

That is why we built this sanctuary, that is why 11 years ago there was a vision; that is why five years ago there was a groundbreaking.

Because, let’s be honest: sometimes it sure don’t feel like the Lord is among us, does it?

Grandmothers die before we get a proper chance to say goodbye.

People leave us with no explanation

We’re given a diagnosis that’s scarey as heck.

Our children get sick; our husbands die.

And we are left in the wilderness; to wander, and to wonder:

“Is God asleep?”
“Does God care?”
“Is the Lord among us or not?”
“Has God led us this far as a joke, a folly, a farce?”

And sometimes the answer comes quick, like fresh brewed coffee, awaking our senses and assuring us that a new day has come.

Sometimes the answer comes in stages, slowly, requiring our time and attention, like a steeping cup of tea.

Five years ago we broke new ground in order to build this sanctuary. We struck the earth with this shovel, we moved rocks and dirt, we moved sand and soil.

Why? So we could do mission. So we could share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We also did so to say “Yes: Yes the Lord is among us.”

“Yes the Lord is right by our side.”

“Yes the Lord knows just how you feel.”

“Yes the Lord knows you’re thirsty”


“Yes, the Lord hears your cries.”

From stage to stage we may cry out, we may test the Lord.

But God will never leave or forsake us.

God did not do it in the wilderness, nor will God do it now.

God may not always act like a Mr. Coffee machine, but God will indeed act and find a way to quench our thirst and to answer our cries.

Just like a civilized cup of hot tea, God just may take some time, but the outcome can still be wonderful.

Thanks be to Jesus who demonstrated to us how to wait upon the Lord, to the Spirit that acts as our guide and to our God, who is indeed, always among us.

Amen and amen.

Sermon from March 20, 2011; Genesis 12:1-5

Rev. George Miller
Genesis 12:1-5
“Today...At Any Age”
March 20, 2011

Here we are: Genesis 12. What you’ve just heard has been called the most important part of Genesis, if not the entire Bible.

It is at this point of Scripture in which God’s plan of salvation for all enters into the story.

In the previous chapters things did not look so good. There was the banishment from Eden, the Flood and the Tower of Babel.

But if there’s any doubt that the God has a plan to bless humanity, this story dissolves it.

This is the story of a family. A family that had been uprooted once before, a family in which a brother dies, a wife in unable to have children and a nephew becomes an orphan.

But this is also the story of how God chooses this family; this broken, barren family and how God gives them a command to go and to do, and how they obey and how they will never be the same again.

It is also a story how about God will never be the same either, for in making a promise to bless this family, God is now committed to their future...

...I have had an affair with Abraham and Sarah for quite some time now. I can’t tell you exactly when it started, but I do recall a day about 15 years ago when I was in Minneapolis working with abused and neglected children.

Out of nowhere I heard one of the kids say “I’ve seen Abraham.” I had no idea who they were talking about, but immediately I had this vision of the Biblical Abraham wandering across the wilderness, dust falling from his feet.

Since then his story has fascinated me. Years later, a Search and Call committee asked me who would be the one person I’d most want to meet, and what question would I ask them.

The answer came quick- Abraham; and I would want to ask “How?” “How did you find the courage to leave everything behind and just go?”

The irony is that it was only about two years ago when I realized why I wanted to ask Abraham that question. It’s the very same thing I’ve been facing for nearly half of my life, having lived in 5 different states, leaving behind family, friends and the places I’ve come to know.

Of course I would want to meet Abraham because in a narcissistic way my subconscious had made him an extension of myself that I was not yet strong enough to come to terms with.

But there is so much more about this story.

This brief passage speaks about the ways of God: the ways in which God can be surprising; the ways in which God can be intrusive; the ways in which God asks us to leave behind...

...God speaks to Abraham and tells him to leave behind three things: the land that he has grown accustomed to, the family that he knows, and any claim he can make to an inheritance.

In a culture in which land and family meant everything, these were big things to forsake. But Abraham and Sarah step out on faith, and they embark on a journey.

And even though it is a journey instigated and watched over by God, it’s not an easy one. There will be turmoil.

Not soon after they leave there is a famine in the land. There is strife between the livestock herders. Lot is the kidnaped and rescued.

There is uncertainty of the promise being fulfilled. 25 years pass before Sarah gives birth to a son, and both she and Abraham die without seeing the birth of their grandbabies.

And, of course, neither one of them do a very good job at always acting faithfully or morally.

There’s the bit in which a very scared Abraham tries to pass his wife off as his sister and he pimps her out to the local king, not once but twice.

There’s the whole debacle in which Sarah gets impatient and tries to force God’s promise along by convincing her husband to sleep with her slave girl.

And of course there is the undeserved abuse that both Abraham and Sarah inflict upon that slave girl and the son she has with Abraham.

And yet, and yet God does not desert them, or go back on the promise or have a change of mind.

Although Abraham and Sarah are left wandering and waiting for 25 years for God’s promise to come true, even though they face dangerous situations, even though they make some major, major mistakes...

....there are also the wonderful moments that enter into their journey; the places they will go, the people they will meet.

For example, the time in which a local King stops by with some bread and wine to visit Abraham and gives him a blessing.

Or the night in which God invites Abraham to go stargazing and God says “I know you’re afraid, but look-up at the heavens. Count the stars- I will give you that many descendants and I will give you land...kings will come from your family and I will be their God.”

Or that one time during the heat of the day when under the oaks of Mamre God pays Abraham and Sarah a visit and after a meal, God reminds them that there is nothing too wonderful for the Lord.

Then of course there is the day in which Isaac is born, and Sarah, with laughter in her soul, invites everyone else to laugh along with her.

Yes, God intruded into the lives of Abraham and Sarah and asked them to leave it all behind.

Was it an easy journey? No.

Did they make lots of mistakes along the way? Heck yes.

Were there moments of wonder and awe?...

...So why is this all important? Why should we care what happened to this one-time broken and barren family?

Because they are our spiritual ancestors. We are who we are because of them.

We were represented by the stars in that night sky oh so long ago.

Because of this, it is their faith that runs through our soul.

Their strength is our strength. Their flaws are our flaws.

Their journeys are our journeys because their God is our God too.

We are Abraham; we are Sarah.

We are called, and we are promised.

Like them, at some point, or at many points in our lives, we are told by God to make some kind of move from one thing towards something else.

For some people that call to will be geographical. For others it will be professional. For others it may be spiritual or emotional.

God intrudes into our life and God calls us to move:

-From disbelief to belief

-From sickness to wellness

-From brokeness to wholeness

-From anger to forgiveness

-From emptiness to feeling fulfilled

-From holding on to letting go

-From bigotry to tolerance

-From judgment to acceptance

-From the way it’s always been done to the way that it can be achieved

-From ‘because I said so’ to ‘tell me what God is saying to you.’

-From ‘I can do it on my own’ to ‘I can’t do it without your help’.

-From ‘we don’t have the funds’ to ‘let’s trust that God will provide’

-From ‘because the pastor says so’ to ‘never place a period where God has placed a comma, God is still speaking.’

-From ‘we don’t allow your kind’ to ‘no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here!’

Each of these moves can be scary. It can be hard to leave behind what we know, especially if we are unsure where God is leading.

And sometimes the journey makes no sense at all, until we get to look back and we can see and we can say “Oh yeah...now I understand.”

Today, at any age, God has the ability to intrude into our lives, to surprise us and to say “Go.”

And just like Abraham, just like Sarah, we get to make the choice to respond, to play a role in God’s ultimate plan for salvation for all.

If we choose not to answer, who knows what blessings and possibilities we may block for others.

But if we do respond, who knows the places we will go, the people we will meet and the things we will experience?

Today, at any age, how is God calling us as an individual, as a church, and as a denomination to go from and to head to?

How can our obedience to God make possible the Creator’s cosmic plan?

Blessings be to the Spirit that moves us along the way, to Jesus who walks with us every step and to God who will not make a promise that can not be kept.

Amen and amen.

Sermon from March 13, 2011 Matthew 4:1-11

Rev. George Miller
Matthew 4:1-11
“Angels in Waiting”
March 13, 2011

Loneliness. Isolation. Depression. We have all felt these emotions. Until someone has, they have not truly experienced the human condition.

Too often we are taught that our emotions should be limited to “be happy”and “stay positive.” If you can’t: well there’s a drug we can prescribe.

Trouble is, since doctors have begun relying on psychotropic drugs, there has been a marked increase in mental illness and health problems.

That’s the message given at last week’s Clergy Cluster. Our guest presenter, neuropychologist Dr. Susan Crum, gave a presentation in regards to mental illness.

According to her, people living with mental illness overseas are faring much better than those living in America.

One theory is that those in America live a highly individualistic life; those living elsewhere are in cultures in which collective societies still exist and extended families are important.

Europe has been using a form of therapy called Milieu Community. Instead of relying on medication, patients live in a structured community environment that features trained personnel and puts an emphasis on social interaction.

In this environment people discover they are not alone. In other words, they are not made to feel as though they are in the wilderness, famished and tormented by demons.

If you recall, back in January I shared the fact that each pastor only has about 4 sermons in them that they dress up differently each week.

One of my sermons is about water in the Bible and how it can be used to represent chaos and destruction. Certainly the recent events in Japan have demonstrated that. One of my other messages is about the wilderness.

The wilderness is that place, be it physical, emotional, spiritual, in which we feel lonely, isolated, depressed.

It is where we feel lost, unsure, without.

The wilderness can be anywhere, anytime and is different for each person. It is a place in which there is danger, trials and no seemingly way out.

When you are in the wilderness it feels like the most horrific place to be. And yet...if you make it out alive and fairly intact, you find that the wilderness is the place in which you discover who you truly are, what you are made of and what matters the most.

We also discover just how many ways God is with us.

The Bible is full of wilderness stories. Four of the first five books of the Bible takes place in the wilderness, as God’s chosen people wander towards the Promised Land.

It was also in the wilderness that the people experienced how God fought for and fed them, they received the Law and Commandments and they discovered that as a community they were stronger then if they were each on their own.

The wilderness. Wandering. Achingly woeful.

We all experience wilderness moments filled with loneliness, isolation and depression.

I think of my own wilderness, between 1994 and 1999. I was living in MN. It was where I went to undergrad, where I came out, where my favorite musicians lived. I thought Minneapolis was going to be my Promised Land.

Well, reality took care of that illusion. I was far away from family and home. I worked two, three jobs at a time, barely making ends meet.

The winters were colder then cold. I hung out with the wrong friends. My father developed cancer and died.

I saw no way out and thought I was destined for a life of nothingness.

Have you ever had a time in your life when you felt that way; as if there was no way out?

And yet, I can look back and see all the ways in which God was working, and present and preparing me for what I do now.

One way was through the church I attended, called Grace Temple Deliverance Church. A black, Pentecostal church led by Dr. Willa Grant Battle, a woman with a strong passion for God, and Doris Akers, the composer of the Gospel classic “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit In this Place.”

It was there that I learned how everyone has problems, but through God we can overcome them. I learned that you can laugh and be reverent during service, that tithing is a way of honoring God, that a shared meal unites people, and the importance of human touch.

If you’ve ever been to a black church, you know the role touch plays. The men great you with solid, strong handshakes. The laying of hands during the altar call. The loving women who hug you to their bosom.

There is something comforting about being enveloped in the arms of a church mother.

When my father died, I recall how one woman discreetly slid money into my hand, they way people prayed for me, how the soloist walked right down the aisle, took my hand and sung “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” directly to me.

They were angels, living angels who used money, touch, prayer, food and song to keep me strong while I was in a wilderness that I could barely navigate on my own.

We all have wilderness moments. If you’ve lived a long life, you will most certainly have more then one. As we see in today’s reading, Jesus had his own.

After Jesus is baptized, he is led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasts for forty days and nights, and he is famished.

Famished. A strong, strong word that opens up so many possibilities.

Besides food and water, Jesus could have also been famished for family, for friends, to be back in community, to hear the latest town gossip, to hear the voice of someone else besides his own.

This part of the story is so important, because it is documenting the humanness of Jesus.

Like us, like the Israelites before him, Jesus has a time in which he struggles in the wilderness, a time of great vulnerability and humanness.

It’s a shame that Matthew did not devote more space on what those forty days were like. Perhaps he felt it was too painful of a topic to explore; what dark thoughts the seclusion would have caused.

How this wilderness time could create feelings of doubt, misdirection, even faithless choices for Jesus. (See Thomas Long’s commentary)

Just how famished is famished? Apparently enough for Satan to swoop in and try to drive a wedge between Jesus and God.

Famished enough that apparently good things like creation, the Temple and worship could be used in a negative context.

And yet Jesus does not waiver. He stays true to who he is and the path he is on. The result is that angels come and wait on him.

I love the last line of today’s reading, the idea that heavenly beings would come and take care of the one who would eventually touch the broken and heal the wounded.

I imagine it in such a way that for each thing Jesus is famished for, there is an angel.

Food? An angel brings him bread; homemade, hot and crusty.

Thirsty? An angel brings him a cup filled with red wine, perhaps a nice Merlot from Barefoot vineyards.

A hot bathe? An angel warms the water and pours it into a copper tub with Calgon bubbles and cocoa butter.

Conversation? An angel sits and shares the latest news about John the Baptist, the problems the Pharisees are causing and how his mother Mary has been doing.

Sleep? The angels gather like on the night of his birth and illuminate the night, singing a lullaby befitting a holy king.

In the wilderness, Jesus experiences an angelic community in which he is not alone, but cared for by God...

...What about the angels who are amongst us today? Living angels. People who make EUCC a safe, nurturing environment in which we discover that no matter what, we are not alone.

That is one of the gifts we have as a church (and as far as I’m concerned, one of the responsibilities of any church): a collective community in which we reach out to and care for one another.

As we enter into the Lenten journey and continue our Stewardship season, this notion of living angels is something that is good to lift up.

After all, it is something we are known for; people notice it and comment on it when they first walk in through the door. The immediate sense of welcome and calm; the friendly, honest way in which they are greeted; the Spirit that is in the air.

The world out there may be a wilderness, but in here, there is peace and there is God and there are living angels.

Another way that living angels have made themselves known? The cards that are sent out. I can not tell you how many times I hear from people who are sick or hospitalized and just how touched and spiritually fed they are by the correspondence they receive.

The prayer shawl ministry. Amazing how a handcrafted item can have such an affect on the individuals who have received them.

But it has. Again and again, we hear from family members and individuals about how much the received prayer shawl has meant, given them comfort, fed their soul.

Finally, being present. That is perhaps the greatest gift a living angel can give to another person.

Not having to do, not having to fix, not having to solve, just simply being there, for a visit, a meal, a joke, a touch.

These are just a few examples of how we have angels in our midst. How else can we be angels to those feeling lonely and depressed? Those feeling scared and unsure? Those who are sick or dying?

Those who feel lost and unable to see a way out?

Angels may not solve our problems, but they help to ease the pain. They help to keep away the demons. And they sure do make the healing presence of God known.

And if Christ himself needed angels to wait on him, how much more do we need it?

In conclusion, when the kingdoms of the world try to put a wedge between us and our God, it is the angels in our midst who help to keep us from wavering.

Be it a strong handshake, a phone call or friendly visit, there are many ways that help us know that we belong to a community, that we belong to God.

Thanks be to the Holy Spirit that leads us to unimagined places, to Jesus who did not waiver, and for God who places living angels in our lives, even when we feel like we are in a wilderness.

Amen and amen.